Keep things on a formal footing

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Most people have heard the one about the boss who called in a worker to dismiss him, only to have him leave thinking he was being promoted. In trying to be reasonable and informal, the boss did such a good job of demonstrating that he could see things from the other point of view that he unwittingly created a completely false impression.

In school, whether the matter in hand is a parental complaint, a grievance, a discipline or competence issue, there is always the danger that well-intentioned efforts to mediate informally will make things worse. Mediators can lose sight of the fact that, if they fail, there will be a formal process to follow and that entering into informal discussions in the comforting English belief that there are usually "faults on both sides" may actually prejudice the formal proceedings.

Without the protection of a formal process, the "accused" may have no idea what the problem actually is and therefore be unable to mount a defence: a fundamental breach of what used to be called "natural justice". In an informal set-up, people may be asked to make or answer complaints without the benefit of representation, and they may feel pressurised to concede points and "bury the unpleasantness".

All this only benefits a no-win, no-fee lawyer at the subsequent employment tribunal.

When the current default processes for discipline and grievance are abolished by the Government, the situation will be still more serious because schools are likely to be held strictly to their own published procedures.

Although the concept "I am going to give you the protection of our formal process" sounds contradictory, this approach is actually best for all concerned. Formal processes can be uncomfortable and time-consuming, but they are there for a purpose; and that purpose is fairness. School leaders should be ready to invoke them sooner rather than later.

Richard Bird, Legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders.

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